Journey to the D-League, Part 3: The players
|03.25.10 at 8:26 am ET|
(Editor’s note: Paul Flannery recently spent some time with the NBA Development League’s Main Red Claws, who are affiliated with the Celtics. He documented his observations about the organization, the players and the fans, who regularly fill to capacity the team’s home arena. Here’s Part 3 of his four-part series.)
PORTLAND, Maine — They all know why they’re here, even if they don’t actually agree with the assessment. Someone, somewhere (actually 30 someones) has deemed them not worthy of a place in the NBA.
To a man, every player in the D-League believes they are good enough to play in the NBA. Some believe it’s a matter of opportunity. Others believe timing plays a crucial role. Get yourself in the right place at the right time and impress the right people, and all that the NBA has to offer is there for the taking.
They’re all right to some degree, and every D-League player can rattle off the name of some end-of-the-bench NBA vet who’s outlived his usefulness and wouldn’t be there except for that long-term guaranteed contract.
But here they are. The ones who ultimately prosper not only understand the reality of the situation, they also apply that knowledge into action on the court. This is not always easy, for when you’ve always relied on your talent and praise from others tends to come from the numbers in the box score, it can mess with your mind.
“[Understanding that] saves them a lot of time and travel and disappointment,” D-League vet Billy Thomas said. “A lot of frustrating nights. Teams want to watch guys that know how to play. You got to be able to put the ball in the hole, sure, but understand how to fit in a team. Not everyone is capable of being the guy that can average 20 points. But what are the goals of the team?”
This is the constant struggle of the D-League, along with the travel and low pay.
They all have a story to tell. Here are three of them:
Billy Thomas figures he’s going to have some fun with his visitor. Slipping on his headphones, Thomas says in all seriousness, “Man, I got no rap for you today. I don’t feel like talking.”
His visitor shrugs. Not the first time he’s heard that. Not even the first time this week. Then Thomas breaks into a huge grin. Of course he has time to talk. Billy Thomas loves to talk.
The first order of business is the list, and Thomas gives it carefully scrutiny. The NBA, CBA, USBL, IBL, D-League, Greece, Serbia, Italy. Any missing?
“The Philippines,” he said. “Can’t forget that. Oh, and Greece twice.”
Thomas looks at the list again and a smile curls on his face as he ponders the last 12 years of his life scribbled onto a reporter’s notebook.
He’s 34 years old and he’s been battling an ankle injury for most of the season. It’s really the first significant injury of his pro career, which is remarkable when you consider some of the places he’s played. Thomas is here because, like everyone else, he thinks he can still play in the NBA.
He’s had a few stints in the big time. There were 25 games with the Nets. That was in 2004-05. The following season he was in 17 more with the Wizards, and a few years after that there was another stop in New Jersey and then seven games with the Cavaliers.
He’s also been a USBL and CBA All-Star and a first-team D-League and CBA selection. Thomas has been around so long he was a member of the Big Eight All-Freshman team at Kansas. That’s Big Eight as in, before the Big 12 existed.
After a dozen hard years grinding it in professional basketball, Thomas is nothing if not a realist, and he knows that he also is here because of his elder statesman status. He was the first selection by the Red Claws in the expansion draft, and that was not an accident.
“That was a very strategic decision,” said Red Claws president and general manager Jon Jennings. “You can get the greatest group of young players, but if you don’t have someone to teach them what it is to be a pro, they’re never going to realize their potential. It has to be the right people. Billy Thomas is the poster child for a guy who has had career success and very good success in the minor leagues.”
Thomas had designs on another NBA job when the season began, but after the ankle injury he began to reconsider his place in the basketball world.
“Now my focus had kind of shifted to winning a championship,” he said, and this is probably the only time a player in the D-League will tell you this and really mean it. “I’m one of the only guys who has won two championships in this league. I like to think I’m in an exclusive class.”
He laughs at that, but in a way he’s very serious.
“Getting three would be success in my own right,” Thomas said. “Maybe not NBA-wise, but looking back, I’ve been very fortunate. At this stage of my life and my career, to be known as the first player in this franchise history and get them off to a good start, regardless of next year, I want to make the most of it.”
When Danny Ainge’s sentiments about what he looks for in finding winning basketball players is relayed to him, Thomas nods his head slowly. He understands.
“Those things mean more to me then they did when I was younger,” he said. “To go through a career and not know that early … If I could have done that early on, things could have been different. I try to preach that to the younger guys. Learn that now. Not having to take two or three years to get that lesson down. That’s two or three years where you could possibly make the NBA.”
He thinks about all that time he spent in Europe, and all those long travel nights in leagues that don’t exist anymore. He thinks about all that, and if he can help one of the young guys understand what it’s all about, and in the process win himself another championship, then this season will have been a success.
The conversation over, Billy Thomas slips on his headphones for real and walks out of the gym. He has put in another day’s work as a professional basketball player. The future holds nothing but uncertainty for him, but he is at peace.
THE EDUCATION OF MARCUS LANDRY
If you want to make the case that playing in the NBA really is about opportunity, look no further than Marcus Landry, who at this moment is stretching his back on a foam roller in the Red Claws locker room.
Most would have assumed that Landry, undrafted out of Wisconsin, would wind up in the D-League at some point, but not with that small Celtics patch on his uniform signifying that he is, in fact, an NBA player. He’s here because the C’s allocated him here, not by choice.
In strict basketball terms, Landry is a classic tweener. Too small to operate effectively against the NBA monsters in the low post, where he is most comfortable, and not skilled enough to step out on the perimeter like a small forward, Landry exists in a large netherworld of basketball talent.
That isn’t to say that genetics dooms a player to a life in the minor leagues. The NBA is filled with players who don’t “fit,” be they undersized power forwards or shooting guards who have to learn how to run the point in order to survive and get a contract.
If you’re not a star, the key to surviving in the NBA is learning how to have at least one bankable commodity in your arsenal. For Landry, who certainly brings basketball skills to the table, it’s as simple as hustle.
Over the summer Landry and his agent looked around the league’s landscape and decided to take a chance on making the Knicks, precisely because they had a roster spot available. Given little chance when he arrived, Landry impressed the coaching staff with his hard work and won a job.
At the trade deadline, his league minimum salary fit the cap parameters and he was included in the Nate Robinson-Eddie House swap to make the math work.
So, Landry made his way to Boston, where he found a loaded roster with experienced players ahead of him in the rotation and no realistic chance of playing. After Landry spent a week in Boston, Ainge decided it was in the player’s best interest to get some playing time, and here he is.
“There’s minutes out there to earn, but on the team I’m on now, it’s hard,” Landry said. “It’s not impossible, but it’s hard. I come down here and show not only them, but other coaches and GMs around the league, that I can play. I can contribute. That’s what it’s about. It goes back to, it’s all business. You can’t just showcase for one person unless you’re on an extended contract. I would love to be back in Boston. It’s a great team. But you never know the outcome of the situation.”
For such a young player, Landry has caught on quick. He knows there’s no guarantee that he’ll be back in Boston, and if he’s not, he sees this as a chance to make an impression on someone else. It’s just business.
“I’m learning that as I go along,” he said. “I’m catching on to it. I really don’t let anything affect me. Some times they tell you one thing, but they tell you that so there won’t be a rumor. You just have to go with the flow. You can’t really believe everything you hear. You just have to go out every day and work hard.”
Landry’s game is suitably tempered to finding a new NBA home. His college teams at Wisconsin were known for playing hard and unselfish basketball. He might not have range like Paul Pierce or a wingspan like Kevin Garnett, but he doesn’t have to learn “winning basketball.” He already understands it.
“My goal is to show that I can play in any system, be versatile, help teams win,” he said. “I’m all about winning. If I can get 25 and we win, then hey, that’s great, but it’s not all about that.”
Landry already has had the opportunity of a lifetime, and he was able to make the most of it. Now he just has to do it all over again.
The first thing you notice about Morris Almond is that he looks the part. Sure, it wouldn’t hurt his cause if he was 6-foot-7 instead of 6-foot-5, but Almond’s 215-pound frame frame is chiseled and cut. The second thing you notice is that he moves like a basketball player: economical and efficient.
Almond is a scorer. This is both his blessing and his curse in a league where points are the cheapest currency one can have. He was leading the D-League in scoring when he was traded by Springfield to Maine in midseason, and he holds the league’s single-game record with 53 points.
This is how he made his name at Rice University, where he graduated with a degree in kinesiology and emerged as one of the leading scorers in the nation, topping out at more than 26 points per game during his senior season. This is what got him noticed by scouts and what helped make him a first-round draft pick by the Utah Jazz in 2007.
Scoring points has got him this far, but now he is stuck in limbo.
With two guaranteed years on Almond’s rookie contract, time was on his side, but not opportunity. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan didn’t find much use for him, and he spent the majority of his two seasons with Utah’s in-state D-League team, the Flash. He was with Orlando until the last cut this past fall, and with no NBA place to call home, Almond became a charter member of the Springfield Armor under Dee Brown (yes, that one).
The Armor is the worst team in the league, and Brown decided it was time to shake things up, so he traded Almond and T.J. Cummings to Maine. Brown was quoted on D-League Digest, a well-read blog devoted to all things D, saying, in effect, that his team needed better ball movement. While Brown said that it wasn’t about Almond, it wasn’t too hard to read between the lines.
Now Almond’s career has two black marks against it. He couldn’t play for Sloan, who might as well have “Play the right way” engraved on Utah’s home court, and he got traded in the D-League even though he was the leading scorer in the league.
“Dee was in a situation where he had to make changes,” Jennings said. “He felt like he needed to shake it up. Prior to Dee there were people who had negative things to say about Morris — he didn’t do this, he didn’t that — and I think they’re wrong, frankly. Morris Almond, to me, from the moment we’ve got him has been an absolute professional.”
The Red Claws, obviously, love him. His average has dropped a few points, but he has become a more efficient scorer with Maine. He’s shooting better than 54 percent from the field and almost 48 percent from 3-point range since the trade, and his turnovers also are down.
“He’s been great,” Red Claws coach Austin Ainge said. “He’s played really well for us. I’ve never heard one word from him about, ‘Get me more shots,’ or anything like that. He’s been the ultimate team guy. He plays to win. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some holes in his game, but he’s a very talented player. He’s one of those guys that if you pick the bottom four guys on an NBA roster he’s as good or better then all of them.”
Jennings has appointed himself president of the Morris Almond Fan Club. “I would do anything to see him get into the NBA,” he said. “It mystifies me. It really does.”
Almond seems to have that effect on people. If you watch him play, he is able to do things that appear to be effortless, which also is part of the problem. The perception is that he doesn’t work hard on defense, and in this business perception becomes reality, and reality is a killer.
“He’s not a bad kid,” Austin Ainge said. “He’s really quiet. Sometimes people misunderstand quiet people. He’s been nothing but a gentleman and a great guy to have around since we got him.”
Almond may yet get another opportunity. The positive reviews he’s generated in Maine certainly won’t hurt his chances.
But for now he is the answer to the question, What’s it mean to be the best player in the D-League? A long bus ride to Sioux Falls, via North Dakota.